Great Lakes host a myriad of ducks, gulls and other birds during winter

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common loon
A common loon juvenile takes a break on Lake Erie before heading to coastal wintering grounds. Common loons can swim under water with tremendous speed and agility when catching fish, but can also fly at speeds of more than 70 mph. Common loons were spotted near Lake Metroparks in November, along with a rare Pacific loon. (Nina Harfmann, Ohio Division of Wildlife, photo)

Standing on the shores of Lake Erie in an icy north wind might lead one to wonder: “Who would want to winter here?” 

Yet thousands of ducks, gulls and other birds do exactly that, flying in from places like Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Newfoundland and the Arctic to winter on Lake Erie or other Great Lakes. They don’t come so much for the weather as the fish — especially gizzard shad — that the lakes provide in seemingly endless supply.

Great black-backed gulls, the largest gull species in the world, come from breeding grounds that stretch from Maine to Newfoundland. Some migrate to the Atlantic coast, but many spend the winter on the Great Lakes. 

Lesser black-backed gulls that nest in the upper Atlantic regions of Canada can also winter in the Great Lakes. Iceland gulls breed in the Arctic, Canada or Greenland, and many choose Lake Erie for wintering. 

They and other gulls (but not seagulls — there is no such species) join the year-round residents, the herring and ring-billed gulls, that use Lake Erie for both nesting and wintering. 

Then there are ducks, like the long-tailed duck, a diving duck capable of plunging to depths of 200 feet. They breed in the Arctic and will winter on the Great Lakes, unless they decide to go on to the coasts. 

Those passing through

Red-breasted mergansers
Red-breasted mergansers land on open water during migration. Lake Erie is the most important staging area in North America for these ducks as they head for wintering grounds on the coasts. The mergansers’ legs are set far back on their bodies, powering their dives. But that means they must get a running start on the water in order to get airborne; they are unable to take off from land. (Tim Daniel, Ohio Division of Wildlife, photo)

But it gets very confusing — and crowded — when the Lake Erie winterers are joined by migrants that are just passing through, like the red-breasted mergansers. For them, Lake Erie is the most important staging area in North America, and one of the most important in the world. 

Andy Avram, interpretive manager for Lake Metroparks, described the Lake Erie staging area in simple terms: “It’s like driving to Yellowstone. You have to stop at Wall Drug.” 

Starting around mid-November, the mergansers start moving in from their breeding grounds in Alaska and Canada. They fly during the day in groups of thousands, so it’s possible to see 10,000 on Lake Erie in a single day, in just a few flocks. 

Mergansers have to eat between 15 and 20 fish each day to meet their energy needs, so they spend their time on the lake diving for shad and other small fish. Their serrated bills help them hang onto their slippery meals. 

Birders

Geese, swans and other water birds also stop at Lake Erie during migration and mingle with the ducks and gulls. This attracts another species to Lake Erie shores: Humans collectively known as “birders.” 

They’re happy watching the large crowds of fishing fowl, but are also hoping to spot the less common and even rare species that sometimes join the others at the aquatic buffet. 

On a single day in November, some double-crested cormorants and three species of loons were spotted from Lake Metroparks, Avram said. They included the red-throated and common loons, but also a rare Pacific loon. 

Some little gulls, the world’s smallest gull species, and black-legged kittiwakes were seen in Lake County that same week. 

There are spots in the Lake Metroparks that allow people to get a bird’s-eye view of the lake, so to speak, including a lookout in the Painesville Township Park and the 50-foot Coastal Observation Tower at Lake Erie Bluffs. 

The Fairport Harbor Lakefront Park is at lake level, but the water is calmer there so ducks and other water birds can be seen using that area as a shelter. Plus, the Grand River flows into Lake Erie there, providing them with fish and other nutrients, Avram said. 

Metorparks gulls

To the west, in the Cleveland Metroparks, birders started looking for little gulls that usually come through the area around Thanksgiving. They’re typically mixed in with Bonaparte’s gulls, which are also fairly small and have a black “M” pattern on their backs. 

There were about 3,000 Bonaparte’s and other gulls off Edgewater Park one day in mid-November, said Tim Jasinski, wildlife rehabilitation specialist at the Lake Erie Nature and Science Center. 

When they join the resident gulls and other migrants, it’s not unusual to see crowds of 5,000 birds on the lake at one time, he said. 

Jasinski, who is known for wearing shorts in all but the most frigid weather, says gulls deserve much more respect than they get. 

“They’re seen as parking lot birds that are messy and a nuisance,” he said. “In reality, they’re all amazing birds that are helpful to the environment.” 

They clean up dead and rotting fish and other animals, but are also good hunters and eat rats and mice. They keep fish populations in check and also clean up food waste at dumps. 

People think gulls all look alike — like seagulls — but each species has different traits and talents, he said. Herring gulls play games in which they carry a stick into the air, drop it, then catch it before it hits the ground. Bonaparte’s gulls nest in pine trees in Canada and Alaska and feed on grasshoppers there, but are able to switch their diets to fish when they migrate. 

Every winter, purple sandpipers show up on the wave-washed rocks and jetties off Edgewater Park, the East Ninth Street Pier and the East 55th Street Marina, Jasinski said. 

They breed in the islands and high arctic portions of Canada and winter on the East Coast, but stop at Lake Erie to feed on the mollusks and insects they find on the breakwalls. These purplish, chunky birds have short legs, making it easier to keep their footing on the rocks. 

Some snowy owls also winter on Lake Erie’s southern shore and are expected to come in larger numbers this year, he said. In their breeding grounds, the arctic tundra, they feed primarily on lemmings, which have a population explosion every four years. 

The last one was in 2017, so there should have been another this year. Birders hope there will be a larger number of snowy owls coming to Ohio as a result. The owls winter on the lakefront, which includes Cleveland Hopkins and Burke Lakefront airports. 

“They like the airports because they’re flat and open, like the tundra, so it’s easy to catch rats, mice and other prey,” he said. “Unfortunately this sometimes creates a hazard for both humans and owls.” 

Viewing winter visitors

There are so many places for birders to see these winter visitors from now through March. Going to lakeeriebirding.ohiodnr.gov will bring up the ODNR’s interactive map of 88 birding trails in the 10 counties that border Lake Erie.

Audubon.org says Sandusky Bay and surrounding areas “provide refuge for 1 million waterfowl during fall and early winter staging, with the bay hosting a peak of 290,000 at one time.” 

And if you wonder about the wisdom of birds choosing to winter on Lake Erie, you have to wonder even more about the humans who brave harsh conditions to see them. It seems that large numbers of gulls are drawn to the lake to feed when the wind is especially strong and the waves are crashing. And that’s when birders flock to the lake, thinking they have a better chance of seeing those rare species that socialize with the gulls.

 “The worse the weather, the better for birding,” Avram said. “If there’s an icy wind, huge waves, and rain — rain is an added bonus — that’s when you see the birders out there, huddling together and freezing.”

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